Squeeze (2010) - Mika Rottenberg
The political elite stage such guttural renditions of horror and comedy that we might have begun to wonder why nobody’s started cracking round a tin pot for our front row, round-the clock seats. When that experience bruises or menaces, satire can humanise and humour that raw and wounding fallout.
While contemporary newspaper cartoonists like Steve Bell, Dave Brown and Martin Ronson continue to lay waste to cycles of excess and scandal, who knows how the barbaric scrutiny of an icon like James Gillray would have responded to our most recent headlines: phone hacking, global austerity, Occupy or even the fickle squabbling of “Pastygate”, each a decadent reminder of the cultural and financial inequality he detested. Alongside renowned photographer and video artist Mika Rottenberg, this exhibit highlights the stinging and reflective strengths of great satire.
Despite a separation of over two centuries between them, Gilray and Rottenberg share a common appreciation of the absurd - his portly and abusive regency characters mirroring the unusual and grotesque narcissism of her actors and actresses. Although, clearly, their targets couldn’t be further apart, each artists' microscopic inspection of human gluttony, pride and other sin compliments each other, highlighting his thematic concerns and her pioneering innovation.
Gilray, whose work charted the course of the Napoleonic wars and lambasted the English bourgeois was both an authoritative critic and surreal artist. His etchings are some of the most enduring and descriptive accounts of Britain’s fight against French conquest. Coursing through his work are a cast of devils, perverts, vagaries and mutated caricatures of the demented Bonaparte, the unscrupulous British Whig statesman Charles James Fox and the rogue Parisian revolutionaries.
Even the portrayal of those he admired weren’t spared mercy. Tory Prime Minister Pitt the Younger, whose party had helped bankroll Gillray’s career, is depicted as a blind crusader of justice, a single minded politician who distanced himself from the cries of the poor and the etiquette of government. There are those that beckoned his scorn readily but Gilray revelled in the dissection of corrupt aristocracy, with his pen falling like an axe upon whoever was guilty to that account.
The bile, accusation and bloodshed he painted scream out of this this definitive exhibit, the sheer volume of work endorsing and reinforcing the belief that he relished the role as judge, jury and (emphatically) executioner of society’s ills.
A Voluptuary Under The Horrors of Digestion -
(© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Driven mad by alcoholism and depression in later life, he often sketched with the scrambled imagination of a roadside preacher, littering his pieces with motifs of poverty, chaos and dismemberment. He fanatically labels not only his subjects and props but the abstract concepts surrounding them. Religion, wealth and political philosophy, among others, are affixed with metaphor or other mode of explanation. While this narrative device was a constraint of his medium, the overwhelming display of speech and image makes them now even more devastating.
This show takes these qualities into consideration and triumphs in both its range and size. It’s as close to a potted history as you could hope for but, more importantly, emphasises both his hysterical vision and vicious tongue under one roof, leading the audience to beg the question – did he lose his mind of his own volition or from immersing himself in a community of people he considered liars and cheats?
Although Rottenberg has not amassed a similar legacy her work is, in broad terms, fashioned along the same lines of Gilray. Born in Puertos Aires, brought up in Israel and now living in New York, Rottenberg’s photography and video art has explored the warped extremes of capitalism and industrial exploitation with Gilray's same vengeful, surgical approach. Much like her predecessor, as her career has thrived her projects have become more ambitious, divergent and apoplectic.
Looking back to her early work, Time and a Half (2003) depicts an Indonesian fast food worker, standing patiently behind the front desk, her hair swaying in the artificial breeze of a table fan. No custom, no work, she waits in servitude, her purpose reduced to that of a doting manikin. It’s a monotonous, listless scene but one that epitomises and introduces Rottenberg’s bleak vision.
Expanding in scale, Mary’s Cherries (2004) and Tropical Breeze (2004) ventured into industrial settings studying the patriarchal workplace. The former films a production line where women clip ornaments from their body, mould them in clay and roll them into Maraschino cherries. The latter, another factory floor of sorts, shows a dexterous acrobat handing tissue paper to a female body builder, who wipes her brow, before passing the moist towelette to be packaged and sold as a must have beauty accessory. The imagery may be dizzying but the message builds like the items her “workers” create, passionately critiquing the arbitrary development and empty reward system of consumerism. Her subjects are endlessly sweating and exerting themselves towards a means with no purpose in the effort of providing worthless garbage. The pastel-shaded dreaminess of her film sets in turn mimic the spotless atmosphere of television advertising and further heightens the Marxist drama.
Barbara from Mary's Cherries (2004) -
Dough (2006) subsequently transports the scenario to a deeply claustrophobic environment as women of wildly unusual physical extremities, feed reams of dough between makeshift grates and slats. This faecal passage of material slides along a concourse of shambolic, hand-made machinery before reaching its final destination – a deep pit of, congealing unused dough. The nihilism is tough to swallow but snappy, cynical touches give this its bite. Each of the women wear name badges despite their existence reduced to the depressing practicality of the shoddy equipment that surrounds them, their only purpose to fill a gap where inorganic engineering cannot. Their personalities are derogated by the process to the degree that their unique figures and fashion are reduced to little more than lucky charms.
What quickly transpires is that this idea is ultimately the chief conceit of Rottenberg’s art. Cheese (2008), a multi-screen installation built inside a fragile, timber shack, plays footage of women in mock-Pagan virginal white dress, using their unusual Rapunzel-like hair as a ceremonial tool to hoard, goat, filter medicine and churn cheese. Squeeze (2010) documents workers based in a nightmarish, impossible structure of a power plant, forced to repetitively endure gruelling, rapid labour at the behest of a never-ending production line. Each piece reinforces the notion of human identity broken down into cog-like insignificance.
Although Rottenberg’s uniform, brash philosophy is in itself divisive, her work hinges critically on how far the viewer can penetrate and absorbs her grotesque, confrontational imagery. Her Freudian, activist imagination is a mesmerising experience to succumb to but her fetishistic nihilism requires an initial willing disposition as well. The best you can do is to sink naturally into her frantic, bawdy, hallucinogenic satire and hope you return the other side.
Confrontational, jingoistic, petrifying and tribal - an intimidating prospect perhaps but this programme of shocking and fantastical art born from a mire of political and social disgraces lends itself as both a cursory introduction to one of the greatest satirists of all time as well as a barmy, engrossing talent who is reimagining the portrait of dissent. A feverish, intelligent and engaging exploration of idealism, art and wit.
Mika Rottenberg and James Gilray runs at the Nottingham Contemporary until July 1.
All Mika Rottenberg images including Dough (2006) appear courtesy of Nicole Klagsbrun and Andrea Rosen Gallery.
All James Gilray images including The Plum Pudding in Danger appear courtesy of and are © of Victoria and Albert Museum, London.